“Don’t call me crazy.
No, I’m not lazy…
I just can’t cope
Without my soap.”
General Hospi-Tale” was a hit song in 1981, when ABC’s serial “General Hospital” exploded as a phenomenon, drawing the largest daytime TV audience in history, 17 million viewers in 12 million homes, with the show in which the mythic lovers Luke and Laura married.
Today, “General Hospital” launches its 30th anniversary and 7,676th episode with a new opening, a soaring helicopter shot of its real-life stand-in USC-County General Hospital, and a throbbing, updated theme recorded by saxophonist Dave Koz. What remains constant in the decade since “General Hospital” was headlined as “TV’s Hottest Show” on Newsweek’s cover, is that viewers still can’t cope without their soap.
Ratings and audiences are down from the heydays of the ’80s, as they are for all network programming, but in the electronic, high-tech ’90s–with more
women than ever out of the home and into the work place during the day–the soaps are the most recorded programs on America’s VCRs. And they remain the strongest bastion of profits for the networks. The concentrated demographic of women in the 18-49 age group and the passionate loyalty of the audience that soaps deliver to advertisers continues to make them one of the most formidable ad mediums around.
“General Hospital” itself is the longest-running soap produced on the West Coast. In New York, CBS’s “Guiding Light” and “As The World Turns” are still sudsing after 41 and 37 years, respectively. Ratings constantly fluctuate, and “General Hospital” currently wins its 2 p.m. afternoon time slot and is No. 3 among the 11 soaps in overall ratings, with an average weekly audience of 14,700 ,00 viewers.
But in pop culture “General Hospital” is the mythic archetype of the TV soap–perhaps because it is produced in Hollywood. It was the model for the suds serial in “Tootsie,” and Dustin Hoffman researched his role on its sets and control room in 1981.
Garry Marshall spoofed the medicine show in his first movie, “Young Doctors In Love,” in which John Beradino cameoed in a take-off on the “General Hospital” role he has played straight on for 30 years.
And last week “Hospital” hunk Antonio Sabato Jr. appeared on TV Guide’s cover with “Bold and Beautiful’s” Hunter Tylo as “Soaps’ Sexiest Stars.”
As the world churns, a venerable soap like “General Hospital” becomes not just another TV drama. To the faithful it is a separate but parallel universe that they visit on their TV screens.
The lives lived there are recognizable but somehow speeded up, more lusty and flamboyant, following slightly different rules, even different natural laws where husbands and wives die and disappear, then reappear back from the dead with preternatural frequency. Mark Twain’s joke, “The reports of my death were grossly exaggerated,” are heavy dramatic dialogue in this world.
As Mimi Torchin, editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Weekly, noted in the March issue, “Willing suspension of disbelief above and beyond the call of duty is perhaps a soap fan’s greatest contribution to daytime drama. Soaps can get away with things that no other dramatic form other than theater could ever hope to pull off.”
On “General Hospital” love triangles merge with triangles to forge sextets of torrid relationships. Ned leaves the scheming Tracy for Jenny, who is the wife of his stepson Paul…and that isn’t even the scandal.
And viewers turn in with passionate loyalty. “When you have a show like ‘GH’ which has been on the air for 30 years–and quite possibly a lot of people have watched that long, or at least a good part of that 30 years–they become totally involved and attached to it in a way that you don’t have an opportunity to become involved with other shows,” notes Maxine Levinson, ABC’s director of daytime programs, West Coast.
“It’s in your home; it’s during the day; it’s there when you are there, very often by yourself. You know these people sometimes longer than you know the real people in your life, and I’m not making that into something silly. But the attachment is really there.”
“General Hospital” executive producer Wendy Rich emphasizes, “The viewers watch three to five days a week. These people are devoted. This is their family. It’s real important to respect them. You have to understand where they are coming from.”
The show’s P.R. man, Scott Barton, adds, “They call the minute the show is over from across the country with their feelings about that day. ‘How could Lucy speak that way to Scotty.’ ”
Actor Brad Maule, who plays Dr. Tony Jones, had one fan who would write 600 letters a year, until he urged she cut down…”to 200 letters a year.”
“So much of what daytime programming is about–much more so than any other part of the schedule–there’s a connection between the fans and the whole thing, ” insists Levinson. “The way the stars go out to do appearances, their connections to the fans is so evident and so much a part of it.”
And the producers and writers listen. Story lines–and actresses’ and actors’ roles–are pumped up or fade out, because of the viewers’ response. Psychologist’s name for this sort of interaction is a Gestalt.
Five weekly national magazines are devoted exclusively to covering the soaps, summarizing the week’s plots and twists, speculating on the fictional characters , moves and motivations as if they were, indeed, real people, and reporting fawning fan magazine tidbits and interviews with the actors who merge seamlessly into their roles.
To the outsider, the soap fan mags are trips through the looking glass where the readers’ grasp of reality seem tenuous at best, but then that is the game of escape the fans are playing.
ABC even publishes its own monthly Episodes promoting its three soaps–not an advertising throw-away but a slick, $ 2.50 a copy, advertising-crammed glossy magazine.
On the sets the line between life and make-believe has always been a little fuzzy. Fourteen years ago when guest stars were in vogue, exercise and weight-loss teacher Richard Simmons found himself on a plane sitting next to then-ABC VP of daytime programming Jackie Smith.
She had seen the bouncy, ebullient Simmons on a talk show and asked if he would like to do a soap. He insisted he wasn’t an actor. No problem. He played himself on “General Hospital,” conducting exercise classes at Luke’s Campus Disco and advising the characters on weight reduction.
“It was the first time that weight was a national issue on TV,” Simmons claims. “The audiences watched as two of the actresses, playing a mother and daughter, weighed in every week on the air.”
Three times a week after taping, Simmons went up to the exec producer’s office, then heavyweight Gloria Monty, and put her through paces foran hour. “She took off sixty pounds,” Simmons proclaims proudly.
Monty also took the soaps where no soap had gone before. Luke and Laura first consummated their flirtation when he raped her on the floor of the deserted Campus Disco to the throb of Herb Alpert’s “Rise.”
Sexy mafioso, mad scientists who were going to deep-freeze the world, mass murderers, handsome aliens from the distant planet Lumina, James Bondish secret agents of the World Security Bureau now all descended on the upstate New York seaport of Port Charles, where previously the major occupations had been medicine and adultery.
“Somewhere along the line it broke the confines of the hospital and moved out into the world, and then you got those grand adventures, Luke and Frisco, people that ran all over the world. And that’s when the show became extremely popular,” notes head writer Bill Levinson.
“General Hospital’s” chart rose from a terminal 12th place to No. 1 and is still rising. Even the male audience rose to 18%, where it has held relatively steady.
The other soaps were quick to copy “General Hospital’s” success. Ratings dipped last year to sixth place. “The bizarre stories became something that all of the shows did. Until that became common,” explains daytime programs director Levinson. “So now we’re faced with an audience that is asking us to get back to reality.” In the projected “General Hospital” storylines, that means surrogate motherhood, child custody battles, sexual responsibility in the age of AIDS, single motherhood and teenage alcoholism.
And a brat pack of gorgeous young actresses and actors have joined the show. “This is not ‘90210,’ ” insists Levinson. “But there’s an element of that. Each of the shows has young people, a teen-age group. Each show has a thirty-something crowd. Each show has the patriarch and matriarch and forty- and fifty-something crowd.
“It’s a question of keeping this all going–in some way. If you just play the young people, you’re going to lose your older group. If you just play the older group, you’re not going to have the younger audience come in and be there 30 years from now. “When you talk about 30 years,” notes actress Emma Samms, who returned to “General Hospital” after an eight-year hiatus on prime time, “no one has been here that long except for John Beradino and the fans. The fans have been here for 30 years. They are the ones who remember.”